The head of the Catholic Church in Iraq has warned EU leaders that Christians – present in the country for almost 2,000 years – could all but disappear unless the violence is halted. Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church – Iraq's largest Christian community – told EU representatives that unless a peaceful resolution is found, "Christians will be left with just a symbolic presence in Iraq. If they leave, their history is finished."
Amid worsening political turmoil in Iraq, Aid to the Church in Need invited a delegation to Brussels headed by Patriarch Sako last Wednesday.
Accompanied by Syrian Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche of Mosul and Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Youssif Mirkis of Kirkuk, the patriarch met EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy as well as members of the European Commission and Parliament.
Archbishop Mirkis said to politicians: "There's so much panic that few Christians see their future in Iraq."
The patriarch told EU leaders that Christians continued to flee areas in the north held by the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
Patriarch Sako added: "Muslims are also fleeing and they have found shelter in the nearby villages with Christian families and in Church buildings."
The delegation said that the Christian community, despite systematic persecution and violence over its 19 centuries of existence, still helps build bridges between the warring parties in sectarian conflicts.
Patriarch Sako said: "We are known to be a disinterested mediator seeking the good of the country. Where fighting groups refuse to meet outside, when we invite them to our Churches to talk, they come."
According to European People's Party MEP Tunne Kelam, the current Iraq crisis has made EU politicians more aware of the fate of Christians in the Middle East.
He said: "We cannot remain indifferent to their situation. The EU should do its utmost to assist them and create conditions that Christians, the oldest known inhabitants of that region, can remain there in conditions of equality and mutual respect."
The loss of security and growth of sectarianism has caused a decline in the numbers of Christians in the country.
Before the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians numbered more than 1.5 million, today there are fewer than 400,000.
Patriarch Sako said: "Under Saddam we had security but no religious freedom. Today we have religious freedom but no security".
EU heads of State were set to discuss the Iraq crisis on 16 July.